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Let the River Run

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By Hugh Hart, Photos by Markku Lahdesmaki

Published Jan 15, 2015 8:00 AM


The long-neglected L.A. river — dismissed by many as a concrete flood-control ditch — is quickly giving rise to Los Angeles’ version of Central Park

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6th St. Bridge Underpass

On a broiling September afternoon, UCLA associate professor of English Allison Carruth carries a butterfly net as she winds her way through the crowd gathered at Glendale’s Marsh Park alongside the Los Angeles River. Dressed in cherry-red sneakers, jeans and a glittering pink scarf, she’s bringing the net to Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County staffers as they prepare a presentation about the wild things that call the river home.

“The scientists do insect capture to show the range of insects at the park,” Carruth explains a few days later. “In the evening, they used this electrical frequency mechanism to capture all the sounds that bats make, which are undetectable to our ears. It shows people that these bats are all around us at the river, even though we can’t see them.”

“Insect wrangler” is just one of several roles embraced by Carruth to help launch the Play the LA River program at Marsh Park II, in the northeast Los Angeles community of Elysian Valley known as Frogtown. Created by the arts collective Project 51, the program centers on a new guide to river sites that is formatted as oversized playing cards and designed to popularize the 51-mile waterway as a place to have fun, relax and commune with nature.

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Allison Carruth, UCLA associate professor of English, helps kick off “Play the LA River,” a program designed to bring people to the 51- mile waterway to relax and play.

To kick off the 51-week initiative, Carruth and her colleagues distribute decks of the informational cards amid a whirl of arts, crafts and “citizen science” activities. Blue and red balloons waft through the sky, embedded with cameras that capture aerial photographs of the landscape. “It’s like the original drone,” explains Los Angeles Natural History Museum educator Lila Higgins.

Nearby, Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority outdoor leader Caitlin Tozer spins a Wheel of Fortune–style game board illustrated with pictures of the double-crested cormorant, cinnamon teal, red-tailed hawk, green heron and American coot. Visitors who try to guess how these local birds of prey grab their food get to pluck a gummy worm with a fork or straw, chopsticks or tongs to emulate the birds’ mode of attack.

Beneath the shade of the Marsh Park pavilion, three Poetry Society of Los Angeles members tap away at old-fashioned typewriters to produce water-themed verse. Stephanie Cheng Smith created tiny motors that make chirping sounds for her Crickets installation of experimental music, part of a series of performances curated by the wulf.

And Down by the Los Angeles River author Joe Linton mans the world’s tiniest “reading room.” Hovering over a two-foot-square bench, he rattles off a list of nonnative fish that make good eating — rainbow trout and other native species that vanished decades ago — and explains why the river runs through cement-clad channels. “There were two big floods in 1934 and 1938, so that’s why they started to concrete the river,” Linton says. “Concreting really kicked into gear after World War II through 1960 at a total cost of $5 billion in today’s dollars.”

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